Henning: Fifth-round pick Colt Keith, 19, already growing on Tigers

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
 
| The Detroit News

Sunday afternoon offered Colt Keith an early lesson about Lakeland, Florida. About its climate, specifically, which he might as well confront ahead of what could be a future Single-A summer there, and maybe a good many spring camps at the TigerTown nerve center.

“I haven’t been to Florida a lot,” said Keith, who is 19 and who four months ago was drafted by the Tigers out of Biloxi (Mississippi) High. “This afternoon it’s 90 degrees, and then all of a sudden it rained hard for a few minutes. And then it was back to the 90s.”

The rain put an end to Sunday’s workout, which ceased at 3 p.m. Keith’s 10-day initiation as a Tigers infielder — moreover, as a professional baseball player — continues, as it does for 48 other minor-leaguers who have convened for an Instructional Camp designed to school prospects in skills they weren’t able to groom during the past summer when COVID-19 canceled minor-league baseball.

Keith’s reaction to baseball boot camp, the first week-and-a-half, anyway, is summarized swiftly:

“Awesome,” he said, which is the word Tigers scouts might have whispered in sizing up his potential.

The Tigers believed, internally, they might have made a fifth-round draft steal when they got Keith in June to buy into a $500,000 deal that kept him from a pledge to Arizona State University.

He was 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, and carried a left-handed bat that at moments seemed more like an explosive device. He was a shortstop with an arm good enough to make him a part-time pitcher, and bloodlines as a wrestler that spoke to his makeup and muscle.

What the Tigers see four months later is an even better model of the teen they drafted in June.

Keith spent his summer in Biloxi lifting weights, working out, throwing and hitting at his old high school facility, and — well — growing.

“I’m almost 6-4 now,” Keith said Sunday, during a phone chat. “I might have hit another growth spurt this summer. I think I’ve added another inch, and some muscle. 

“Compared with June, when my body fat was 14 percent, yesterday my body fat was only 12 percent — and I’ve gained 10 pounds.”

The first 10 days at Instructional Camp have been like a teen’s first days at college. There is an adjustment period, in all facets. In Keith’s case, the college metaphor extends to actually living in a dorm on the Tigers complex. 

Routine day

There is breakfast early, then workouts, then lunch, and an afternoon of drills and tutoring with the rest of the Tigers’ hatchery, including some who were drafted in front of him in June: Spencer Torkelson, Daniel Cabrera, Trei Cruz, and Gage Workman.

“It’s everything I’ve ever imagined,” Keith said about his Tigers intro. “Just being blessed to get out of bed, get a shower, then go hit baseballs and hang around with dudes who are in the exact same situation.”

Of great appeal to the Tigers as they work to seed a farm system is Keith’s flexibility. He plays shortstop, but Sunday worked at third base and second base, as well. 

He could, at some point, move to the outfield, especially when his arm is strong enough for right field.

The Tigers are in no hurry. What matters most is that his prime-time skill matures.

“He’s a very strong-bodied, athletic kid who’s got some thump with the bat,” said Dave Littlefield, who supervises Tigers player development. “Obviously, it’s been a limited amount of time here, but this is a real, physical kid. 

“Very strong. Very strong-bodied. But lean, as well. He has good bat speed and the ball jumps off the barrel.”

Littlefield acknowledged that, with Keith, position remains fluid. And that’s fine with his new team.

“The guy has the look of a corner player,” Littlefield said. “That’s what our scouting people saw. And that’s been the early look. There’s a lot to be excited about.”

Keith is from Ohio — and from nearly everywhere else.

He was born in Zanesville, then moved to Utah when he was “about 10.” A couple of years later, it was on to Phoenix, Arizona, and ultimately to Biloxi. Keith’s mother, Mary, is an attorney and counsel to oil-and-gas firms, while his dad, Troy, is a middle-school math teacher and high-school wrestling coach, which explains Colt’s early years mashing unlucky opponents on mats. 

Note that there was none of the usual football-basketball-baseball rhythms that so many blessed athletes display at least early in their high school years. Neither sport appealed to Colt, whose dad passed onto him a different love.

Early takedown 

“I was all wrestling,” he said of his middle-school days. “Went to every tournament. Was second in state (tournament). Won a few national tournaments. 

“But about 14, 15, I hit a growth spurt and started getting attention from scouts. I gave up wrestling my freshman year.”

Colt — his given first name is Colten — has a younger brother, Cael, who is so academically gifted he skipped a year and already is enrolled at veterinary school at Ohio State. Colt was a classroom whiz himself and would have headed for the business administration school at ASU had he opted for his Sun Devils scholarship.

But, for all his lineage, for all the reasons he might have said yes to three years with coach Tracy Smith’s celebrity team at ASU, Keith had a different urge.

“I really wanted to play pro ball,” he said. “I felt I was ready for it.”

So did most scouts. Baseball America had this to say about Keith:

… Keith was named the Gatorade 2018-19 Mississippi Player of the Year after hitting .527 with eight home runs. Keith showed a knack for putting the barrel on the baseball last summer against top pitchers in the 2020 class and scouts believe he has an impressive array of plus tools.

Keith has plus-raw power, is a plus runner, and also has plus arm-strength … He drives the ball hard to the opposite field and can easily pull the ball out of the park.”  

What a player four months out of high school is learning at Lakeland is, naturally, what he was supposed to have been ingesting this summer. A pandemic decided otherwise  — for all big-league prospects blocked from what should have been a typical summer of games and high-intensity schooling.

Keith says what he learned in the first 10 days of Lakeland’s five-week seminar is more than he or any overflow notebook could quickly detail. 

But one difference stands out.

“In high school, you’d do certain things maybe three or four times a week – hit this day, field this day, whatever,” Keith said. “The difference in pro ball is you’re doing everything, every day. 

“I wasn’t used to throwing every day. Here, there’s a 12-minute throwing program to warm up, then you’re taking ground balls, and throwing across the diamond for double-plays.”

He says he has absorbed as much just talking with his Tigers prospect cohorts: Torkelson, who was taken first overall by the Tigers, and also outfield gun Riley Greene, who is a year out of high school but who, like Torkelson, spent six weeks at Toledo’s taxi-squad laboratory.

“I get to feed off them and learn what they know,” Keith said. “There’s a different level, mentally, at this stage. You’ve got to know how to prepare yourself.”

This will be the routine for another month. Baseball for a 19-year-old now is a full-time job and devotion. 

And even when distancing and masks and other COVID-related clutter can make for some awkward, or even irritating, moments, there’s a certain ecstasy a well-traveled man knows as he heads each day for the TigerTown fields, pursuing a career — and a passion.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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